Utahn Scott Brown was, understandably, rather nervous when he and his business partner taped an appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” looking for investors in their game, PaddleSmash. Not only were Brown and Tim Swindle face-to-face with the Sharks, but they were thinking about the millions of viewers who could, eventually, see them on TV.
They started to breathe a little easier, however, when two of the Sharks/investors — Mark Cuban and Robert Herjavec — insisted on coming over and playing the game, which is sort of a cross between pickleball and Spikeball.
“I mean, good times were had for sure,” said Brown, who makes his home in Alpine. Although he and Swindle, who lives in Nashville, were knocked a bit off balance by Cuban (estimated worth: $5.1 billion) and Herjavec (estimated worth: $300 million). They had earlier nixed the idea of having PaddleSmash players on set because they considered it “too high-risk. We just didn’t know if we’d get really good play when the cameras were rolling.” So, instead, they came armed with video of gameplay.
“And then Mark and Robert were, like, ‘We want to try it,’” Brown said, “and our game has a little bit of a learning curve. It takes about 10 minutes to get used to gameplay, and we were a little bit nervous about having Sharks playing it on air.”
No spoilers before the episode airs — Friday at 7 p.m. on ABC/Channel 4 — but it was “not great play. But it was really fun.”
Playing the game
Brown and Swindle, who describe themselves as “serial entrepreneurs,” have made a career out of marketing toys and games. “And we were looking for something pickleball-related to make,” Brown said.
They were introduced to Joe Bingham, from Pleasant View, Utah, who invented the game to amuse his seven children. “We ended up going and meeting him, playing it, loving it, and licensing it from him,” Brown said.
The outdoor game, for 2-to-4 players, requires them to alternate using a paddle to smash a pickleball over a net and into the small, hexagonal, portable court. If the ball hits the ground or doesn’t leave the court, then the other team scores a point.
(There is an excellent instructional video on YouTube.)
Brown and Swindle worked to create a portable version of the game. The base of the game is also the carrying case. Everything fits inside, and you can carry it around easily. “When you’re ready to play, you just unbuckle the latches, open up that base, take out the net, and it really is less than a minute to set it up and be playing,” Brown said.
You can play it on the beach or in your backyard, Brown said, and pickleball enthusiasts are even playing it while they’re waiting for a court to open up. “It’s something you can set up on the grass while you’re waiting to play and it keeps you warm while you’re waiting,” Brown said.
It sells for $199.99 — although it’s currently on sale for $169.99 — and is available at Dick’s, Scheels and online at paddlesmash.com.
Getting the word out
Brown and Swindle launched PaddleSmash a year ago, and have been working to promote it since then.
They knew someone who got the game an appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” — an on-air pitch with Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb — “and as it happened, one of the producers for ‘Shark Tank’ was watching that episode,” Brown said. The producer reached out to them and encouraged them to apply for the show — pretty much guaranteeing they’d get on with the Sharks, but telling them they’d still have to go through the “whole process” of paperwork and auditions.
What they didn’t know then is that the process to get on “Shark Tank” is “months and months of paperwork,” Brown said. “Honestly, I bore more of my soul to ‘Shark Tank’ than I do to my therapist.” And then there’s “round after round of practice pitching,” he said.
Why put themselves through all of that? Because an appearance on “Shark Tank” brings unparalleled exposure for new products. “We went in kind of thinking, ‘A deal would be great, but just getting on TV is the ultimate goal,” Brown said. “You have the chance to get your product in front of millions of viewers. And then there’s all the people that record it and all the people that stream it and all the people that watch the reruns. It is a gift that keeps on giving over and over.”
Entering the limelight
Being approved to go to Los Angeles and tape a segment of “Shark Tank” is just the first step. Brown and Swindle spent a lot of time preparing for their appearance — a lot of time.
“You practice your pitch over and over,” Brown said. “You practice it in front of the producers, and they give you feedback. So by the time it’s your time to go on, you feel like you’ve got the one-minute pitch down pat.”
They got to spend some time wandering around the set to “get some comfort level” with it. And, while there’s no direct interaction, the Sharks are also on the set “just kind of mingling amongst themselves. But they’re out there, so it’s not like when you do your pitch is the first time you’ve seen them,” Brown said. “By the time we were on, I was feeling good. Like, the nervousness had washed away. "
Well, not entirely. He described it as “an intense experience.” But after making their pitch, “you don’t know what to expect.”
As edited for the show, entrepreneurs take a few minutes of questions from the Sharks. In reality, it’s a lot longer than that — Brown and Swindle were questioned for 35 minutes. “That’s what had us nervous. We don’t know what they’re going to ask us,” Brown said. “And when you don’t know, you have to prep for everything. And prepping for questions from a billionaire is scary.”
The Sharks, he said, were “drilling down on very specific components of your business. I mean, obviously, they’re parting with their money. I know they’re wealthy, but it’s still their money. They want to get a better understanding of your business.”
It was also nerve-wracking to know that, if one or more of the Sharks was interested in investing, they’d have to make a quick decision about whether to accept their offers.
“You see that on TV, and you’re thinking, ‘I’ll bet they let them have some real time to talk off camera.’ And that’s not the case,” Brown said. “Or at least, it wasn’t with us, I actually had to hold up one of our paddles to block my mouth so I could talk privately with my business partner for just a second about whether we wanted to accept the deal.”
Going to Los Angeles and filming a segment for “Shark Tank” doesn’t mean you’ll actually make it on TV. The show tapes lots of segments, and only some of them are included in episodes.
Brown and Swindle taped their segment back in June; they found out about three weeks before Friday’s airdate that they’ll actually be on TV.
“So you’re having to make some big bets for your business in the event that you’re going to air,” Brown said. “I have a good friend that was on who sold 10,000 units of his product within minutes of airing.” A business wants to be able to fill orders if it gets on the show and things go well, he said, but “you’re having to buy all that inventory not knowing for sure if or when you’ll air.”
(A season of “Shark Tank” runs from September until May.)
“I’m as relieved as humanly possible right now that our episode is going to air,” Brown said. He found out about the airdate when his partner texted him as he was getting off a plane, he said, “and it was like I was floating through the airport for the next half an hour. It was a feeling unlike any other.”
When a deal is reached on the show, that doesn’t necessarily mean an actual deal has been consummated. After the cameras are turned off, the Shark negotiates with the entrepreneur, and only some of those negotiations result in a contract.
(Various estimates of the number of deals announced on the show that are actually executed range from 30 to 80%. In some cases, the Shark put the kibosh on an agreement after investigating the companies; in some cases, what the entrepreneurs really wanted was the publicity that goes with being on the show.)
To get on TV, entrepreneurs have to be entertaining and engaging, both with the Sharks and (potentially) with the viewers. But they’re also told before they go on that if the Sharks “get the feeling that you are not on the episode in good faith — meaning that you’re [not] genuinely looking for a deal — they have the right to reach out to the production company and nix your episode. And so that is hanging over you.”
It’s a balancing act. You have to be good TV, but you can’t just be good TV.
“It makes good TV when deals are made,” Brown said. “But Mark Cuban alone has 150 businesses in his portfolio from ‘Shark Tank,’ so I don’t think he’s desperate for new businesses to add to that portfolio. I think Mark Cuban first and foremost wants to make good TV and build his personal brand. And we, first and foremost, wanted to get on TV, because the largest value of this is getting on TV.”
Again, no spoilers, but Brown and Swindle were at least somewhat relieved when, as their segment began, “Mark Cuban said that not investing in Spikeball is his biggest regret ever on ‘Shark Tank,’” Brown said. “And so … I think we both felt reassured that we had something that would be interesting to the Sharks.”